The following are written responses to The Devil to Pay in the Backlands by undergraduate students at San Diego State University (Spring 2014).
A Dangerous Business
by Kayla Bond
Look; the most important and nicest thing in the world is this: that people aren’t always the same, they are not all of a piece and finished but keep on changing.
-João Guimarães Rosa
The Devil to Pay in the Backlands is really a story about people. If one reads carefully, you’ll find many hidden gems strictly about the nature of people and the nature of life. One of the main sayings throughout the novel is that ‘living is a dangerous business’. This proves very true in the short pocket narrative of Maria Mutema, even more so than all the battles and gun fights that Riobaldo finds himself in. This is mostly because a simple woman killed her husband for no good reason. She’s even more of a dangerous thought because she isn’t a soldier trained to kill or even someone we would expect to kill viciously and pointlessly. It is proving that anyone can be dangerous and in turn, no one is truly safe… living is a dangerous business.
There are three big things we can learn from this pocket narrative. One is that we, as humans, are a very vulnerable bunch. Maria a simple woman who no one feared- they all came to her aid with nothing but love when her husband ‘passed’ and all throughout his burial… when all along she was the one who killed the man. Humans are very vulnerable and are so sympathetic that we tend to look past dangerous possibilities in order to comfort others, knowing that if it were ourselves who ‘lost’ our husband, we’d want the support from others. We become vulnerable from a ‘do unto others what you’d want them to do to you’ mentality.
A second thing we learn can be understood through the study of criminal behavior. When you study this, you find that most of time, we look past ‘normal’ people as suspects because they have no visible signs of an un-hinged mind. Maria is a prime example of a ‘normal’ person in a human’s eyes. It was said that she had hardships from a long life of working in the field engraved in her heart, but she kept every hardship to herself- no one really ever knew her. They only thought they did. These people are usually the most dangerous. One reason for this is because when someone keeps that much sadness and anger bottled up, it’s only a matter of time before that bottle gets too full- and shatters into a million pieces. I believe, after only getting a brief look into her behavior and life, that this is what happened. There was no ill will towards her husband. Simply that she had ill will towards herself that she had held in for so long. And, unfortunately, it came to a point where she burst- and he was the closest person.
A third thing we learn about the nature of life and people is that when we feel guilt, we always seem to turn to religion (and in turn, sought-out salvation), whether or not we believed before hand because ‘praying is what cures madness’ (Rosa, 10). It is an ingrained comfort to think that you can sin so terribly, and by confessing to a priest, you’re forgiven of something so horrendous as taking another’s life. This is not necessarily how it works. But, it is very interesting that this story pointed out this notion that we humans have. To go along with the church scenario, it should also be pointed out the that poor priest, Padre Ponte, died from the stress and secrecy that had to be kept while listening to her horrid confessional every three days. He died because of the stress from her sins. I believe this was another gem of life- our actions do not only affect us, but the people around us as well. Having to worry about others actions on top of our own makes stepping around life very worrisome. Living is a dangerous business.
The whole pocket narrative about Maria Mutema encompasses the main point that Rosa was trying to make about people and life. It’s very interesting that he chose to put the whole theme of the 494- page novel into 6 pages. But, if you understand the point he was trying to make, you can understand the rest of the story the way he intended. This is not really a story about God and the Devil. It is in a sense, but it’s pointing out the human struggle we go through on a daily basis with our choices and how we, as humans, deal with the nature of others just like ourselves. How anyone can be vulnerable to darkness and how no one is truly safe in their own self. However, there is good in the world. There is a God. And there is hope that we can triumph happily over this dangerous business that we call life.
The Devil Inside
by Aaron Aguiar
The Devil to pay in the Backlands is a novel rooted in the idea of the devil. The question of the devil’s existence itself perils the main character, Riobaldo, through the entirety of this novel. Riobaldo desperately tries to both prove and disprove the existence of the devil, and is seemingly pained by this internal dilemma. As Riobaldo narrates he seems to not only be telling a story, but also revealing answers to his inner debate. He struggles between three potential realities revolving around the devil; the first is that the devil does not exist, the second is that the devil exists as an entity responsible for evil in the world, while the last, and the most compelling, is the prospect that the devil is no more tangible than an idea, and this idea of the devil lives within each and every one of us. He entertains all three potential truths but ponders extensively the last.
While reflecting on his life and experiences Riobaldo says, “Only by degrees does the obscure become clear”(Rosa 160). This seems to be an ever-present theme throughout the novel, and an important look into Riobaldo’s thought process regarding the existence of the devil. As the novel proceeds Riobaldo is constantly going from wholeheartedly believing in the devil to saying he simply does not exist. But constantly Riobaldo also allows for the possibility that the devil lives within us as an idea both real and a lie. During one such episode of vehemently attempting to define the existence of the devil Riobaldo says “All that has been is the beginning of what is to be—we are forever at a crossroads”(Rosa 259). The idea of a crossroads is an essential one in this novel as a crossroad is a place where the devil is present. If each person is forever at a crossroads, this means the devil is with each person all of their lives. Riobaldo continues to debate this topic throughout the novel, and eventually attempts to conclusively determine if the devil exists by going to an actual crossroad and calling out to Lucifer himself.
Riobaldo leaves camp at night in search of a crossroad, upon arrival he screams out to the devil, almost begging for some sort of conclusive sign of his existence. Nothing happens. He states, “Only another silence. Do you know what silence is? Silence is only ourselves”(Rosa 344). Without an answer Riobaldo is then faced with more questions than answers again. After contemplating he then says, “It was then I knew—he does not exist. He neither appeared nor answered—just a figment of the imagination. But I was satisfied that he had heard me. He heard me—as if he had taken in all my words, and closed the deal”(Rosa 344-345). He says conclusively the devil does not exist, but then states that he had heard him as if he was real. At this point Riobaldo denies the devil as an entity that comes and goes, but does not deny his realness. Following this event Riobaldo becomes strikingly more poised and brave eventually becoming the leader of his camp. This story parallels another anecdote from earlier in the novel, and according to this account in order to become truly brave one must enter the forest and kill a panther with a knife. The panther is among the most feared and dangerous animals, and killing one in its habitat with a knife is sure to create a truly brave man. Riobaldo mirrors this feat by going to where the devil resides and challenging his existence, and when the devil does not reply he essentially kills the devil within himself, resulting in supreme confidence. There is no transfer of courage from the panther or the devil to the person who kills them. One becomes brave because within them they have disproved what either the panther or the devil represents, and once one does that there is nothing left to fear.
Riobaldo is constantly changing his view on whether the devil exists or not, this constant back and forth shows that he believes the devil both exists and does not exist. The devil exists inside us as an idea, an idea that can both conquer and be conquered.
A Dangerous Business
By Christian Clark
“Living is a dangerous business,” repeated almost sacrilegiously throughout the novel, A Devil To Pay in the Backlands, is a statement that is only taken at face value until you contemplate what lies beneath the question. Why is living such a dangerous business, and who makes it that way? It is the devil, the “One-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named”, the silent observer, in the business of trading men’s souls’? Or is it Man? Plain and simple we can be the cause of everything that is bad in this world, no supernatural explanation need be applied. The evidence given throughout the novel is almost overbearing with evidence that the Devil does not actually exist, yet at the same time describes scenes that we must accept as the truth, that seem like there had to be a hint of some other power being involved.
The Devil’s presence is strong throughout the sertao, penetrating through everybody and everything. Yet, it seems like the most common appearance of the devil are the times when Men call on him themselves. Hermogenes is believed to have made a pact with the Devil, to have traded his soul in exchange for power. Killing Joca Ramiro only proves the point, as only someone with an evil presence inside of them could kill a jagunco so pure, honest and brave as Joca was. Wanting to help those in need, and being respected by all those around him, at an early age when Riobaldo met him at his godfather’s fazenda he left an impression that wouldn’t be forgotten. When Riobaldo runs away from his godfather’s and leaves the first group of jaguncos he comes across, he meets up with his childhood friend Reinaldo, and ends up serving Joca Ramiro under his lieutenant, Hermogenes. At first exactly what Riobaldo could have hoped for, but soon you begin to hear rumors that Hermogenes himself is a man who once bartered with the Devil. Riobaldo tells us multiple stories within the novel of evil presences happening amongst the people who live all over the countryside, and it’s left to us to determine what is really behind such acts. A set of parents who, upon seeing their child had a knack for killing things, started to beat him every day. In order to show that they had no tolerance for the devil and his activities, they started to do it publicly. Then they started to like it. How else could there be lepers on the trees, licking the guavas? Or an entire town abandoned by everyone else, trying to deal with a black pox epidemic on their own.
When Riobaldo goes to the crossroads and tries to call down the Devil, nothing happens. Nothing immediately apparent anyway. He begins to feel cold, he crawls away into the night and when he finally returns to the camp of jaguncos he notices certain strange things starting to happen around him. The horses act considerably different towards him than they used to, and he begins to feel like he deserves more respect and power as well. Riobaldo at this point in the narrative already shown signs of contempt with Ze Bebelo, whom a large band of jaguncos joined after Hermogenes and Ricardao killed Joca Ramiro, and after Madeiro Vaz had a failed venture into the desert and paid with his life. The sertao is seen as this large expanse with thousands of little creeks, rivers, and waterways making their way throughout the land. Much like the little creeks can join to form larger and larger streams, the stories in this novel combine to form a greater and greater picture of what life is like for the people who live there. Their fears, doubts, needs, and dreams are often expressed throughout the multitude of stories that Riobaldo has heard about over his long life. Do these stories help advance the idea that there is actually a Devil? That he has immeasurable power that can be granted to those who want it and can pay the ultimate price? Before the deal, Riobaldo had challenged Ze Bebelo’s authority in private when he wanted to sell out all of the jaguncos, but he did not bring it up with anyone else. After making the deal, Riobaldo seems to have acquired a “gift” when he is suddenly seen as more talkative, friendly, and after being given the gift of a beautiful horse, finally challenges two chiefs by asking one question: “Who is the Chief?”
The immediate actions may have fallen into place rather coincidentally, but from what Riobaldo himself could control and the actions he had been taking so far in the novel put him on the course that seemed to naturally lead in this direction. Riobaldo had been chosen before to be Chief by Madeiro Vaz, he graciously turned it down and even delegated handing the power off to someone else. The symbol of a true leader is in how they handle the power that is given to them, and Riobaldo realizing he is not ready for power is a sign that he could be a great one. Is it not unlikely then, that the jaguncos who had been traveling with him all along, noticing his skills as a marksman, his sharp intellect and wit, would be behind him becoming chief when Ze Bebelo had barely guided them out of a very dangerous situation? Riobaldo is shown to be a man who is rather charming, having had a multitude of lady partners, but not devoid of feelings as he is very intimately tied with Diadorim and his wife, Otacilia. His feelings never dissipate and go away, and even after he made the deal, he thinks fondly on both of them. Is it possible then, that Hermogenes could have made the deal with the devil? Would Hermogenes be able to have a wife if he had? Does the Devil even exist?
Throughout the novel Riobaldo spends his time asking us, the readers, and the character in the novel he is speaking to, that question. Who, or what, is the devil? Can it exist? What is it that causes its appearance? When you live in the sertao you are subscribing yourself to a very dangerous lifestyle. One that is dependent on the particular surroundings that you grew up in. If you are under the leadership of someone who you think sold their soul to the devil, would the dark blessings also hold a hand to all those serving under the chief? When Riobaldo was fighting under Hermogenes, he experienced very intense scenes of battle. Having to crawl up a mountain to get a good shot, because he was recognized within the whole band as the best sharpshooter, and witnessing the two other people who went with he and Hermogenes die, having to leave their bodies lying where they were. But living is a dangerous business, so they must have known that, and therefore must not have had any doubt that it could happen to them. Death can happen at any time for any man. It’s not always called for, and sometimes, it seems to be like there is some other invisible hand at work, guiding the hearts and minds of people to carry out the sin of murder. Was the Devil tempting Rioblado when he made him the Chief, and was it the Devil who insisted that Rioblado kill someone to show his power? The man was scared, poor, and alone, traveling with only his horse and his dog. Rioblado second guesses himself, and insists that he doesn’t need to kill the man, he will kill the dog instead. The band agrees, and his friends tie up the dog, and set the man on his way. Once again, however, Riobaldo has a change of heart, and decides to kill the horse. He feels the need to kill something because he promised the band he would, but when it comes down to it, he can’t bring himself to actually kill any of the three things he said he would. He releases the dog, and it zips away to its master’s location, and the horse is left tied up and grazing. If the Devil did exist, was it he who was whispering in Riobaldo’s ear that he should take a life? Riobaldo even felt the need to make an excuse when his men wanted not to kill the horse, but rather send it back to its master as well. However bad the intentions may have started out, eventually the whole group turned around, and they all respected Riobaldo as chief just a little bit more for it. So was the Devil about to get his way until suddenly God intervened, and stepping in with Riobaldo, extended his good grace throughout everyone who was present? Or maybe instead, the will of these men can change, just like anything else in the sertao, constantly moving and shifting, the fragments and streams of people’s lives coming to form their whole story and meld the people they will be with others. Riobaldo wants to shoot the leper who is licking the guava fruit in the tree, but does not. Is it Diadorim, the white light in Riobaldo’s story, who stops him, and tells him that he doesn’t have to?
Man falls ill to certain vices, and it is not always something that is realized until it is too late. Hatred, Gluttony, Pride, Lust, all of these temptations surround these jaguncos and the people in the sertao. How else could you explain a whole town cutting off their neighboring village, in order to leave them to their own devices and settle out the sickness on their own? Armed individuals scared of the terrifying jaguncos who are trying to pass by, but still willing to not allow any sick people near his family. Can evil exist with pure intentions? Where does Hermogenes lie? For with all this talk of making a pact with the Devil, one is almost inclined to take it as a fact. However, you shouldn’t fall prey to what you hear, even if it is the most believed opinion. Would a man possessed by a dark spirit have gone back to fight for his wife? One that didn’t even seem partial to him at all? Yet for some reason Hermogenes found it compelling enough to send in his whole band against Rioblado’s for a final showdown. Did Hermogenes marry a woman without falling in love with her? How long ago had he made the pact, did he do it with evil intentions? There certainly seemed to be a certain presence over the first time the band of jaguncos tried to cross the desert and try to catch Hermogenes off guard by attacking from the side of the desert. With the heat and the stagnated wind, the men all became thirsty, very thirsty, and eventually even a few went crazy. A hairless ape was seen, and shot, what was found out was that the “hairless ape” was actually a woman’s son. What do you do when in the middle of the desert and starving and you shoot a “hairless ape?” You eat it of course! What was interesting is that after the band ate the person. The exceptions to this meal are solely Diadorim, even Riobaldo had a little taste. The men ended up becoming sick, and going even crazier than before. Madiero Vaz, the Chief at the time, could be said to have died from the meat he ate. Why did he have to die, and was there a play by someone who cannot be seen except by those who are looking for him?
This novel illustrates the conceptions and reality of the region the story is set in, with colonial government not spread throughout all of Brazil, out in the sertao people have to make their own way, and who else is there to help them but God? He’s the only one who can reach them, the only person who is really willing to help. The jaguncos come through villages, they sometimes help, and sometimes they burn down villages and rape women. Everything and everyone in the novel is almost immediately presented in e duality situation. Even the love Riobaldo has for Otacilia is plagued by the duality of his feelings for Diadorim. Feelings he can’t show, ones that aren’t appropriate and shouldn’t be spoken of, but if only he could. He talks of birds to Otacilia, and yet it was the birds that first brought Riobaldo and Diadorim together. Otacilia is given the gem that Rioblado had acquired, and when Diadorim sees this she feels deeply saddened. For Diadorim is not free and clear of dualities herself. She leads the biggest duality in the book next to Hermogenes and Riobaldo. She is dressed like a male jagunco, and works for her own father, Joca Ramiro, underneath the very general who would later kill him, Hermogenes. Not only is the twist of fate a very accurate portrayal of how quickly things can change, but also now Diadorim has to avenge her father’s death, while still portraying herself as a male to everyone, including Riobaldo. She allows herself brief moments where their hands meet, or she looks at him, or they manage to go and spend some alone time together talking, but she must remain in that costume for the entirety of the time she is a jagunco. How about the pact made between Davidao and Faustino? Not one of the Devils, but rather one that should Davidao die, Faustino should take his place. What happens at the end of their tale? Well they both go on to engage in many battles and are very seasoned jaguncos, however in the end, after all of it, Davidao convinces Faustino to retire from being a jagunco and they end up co owning farms close to each other. These men set out in search of avoiding their deaths, and they found the best way to avoid causing the death was to stick together, and make sure each other didn’t get killed, just in case. Just like Ribaldo would eventually do, he would settle down and live his life on the ranches he inherited, with his wife, happy, content, and thinking on his life.
If the Devil did exist, he would have to reside inside of man. The trading of souls allows you to let him in, and in exchange you get so much more than you could have dreamed. Hermogenes was a man who wanted everything for himself, and was killing the good men who were defending the rights of the people of the sertao. The grand sertao, full of so much wonder! Riobaldo saved Ze Bebelo from being killed on the spot for going against Joca Ramiro, and at a trial they heard from multiple jaguncos, not of Ze Bebelo’s but of Joca’s, arguing to spare his life. That even in leading many men to their deaths, Ze Bebelo had done no more than they had, and that the situation they had before them with a prisoner was unique, and he should be let go. Dissent came from Ricardao and Hermogenes, but in the end Ze Bebelo was let go. If the devil had existed, you would think they would all cry out for blood against this man. The scenario they had before them was so unique it’s almost hard not to think of it ending in a different way. Yet there, in the midst of people who should be his enemies, he finds salvation. If the devil was to exist, then so should God, and we see evidence of good deeds throughout this novel as much as we see evidence for the devil. So then is evil permanent? We see evidence of both sides in this novel, we see men who care for nothing but themselves, and wanting to see the world at their feet. We see men whose righteous nature gets them killed, and we see men who cross the lines into both areas. We see people who are not afraid to kill but do it solely so others may live, we see women who are willing to risk death for those they love, and we see a band of men revered for their toughness, become silent at the sight of a fallen comrade. The jaguncos do not stand for any one side, but represent a multitude of views. They are a perfect representation of the duality of humanity in the novel. Just because Joca Ramiro was killed doesn’t mean that the men serving him would stop being jaguncos, and I doubt he would be the last one with those ideals.
The jaguncos are a rough bunch of individuals who travel across the sertao looking to instill order, and to claim power, for themselves or for the people. Both are sides of the same coin, and men are in control of which side they call. Which side will land facing upward though, is another matter. Riobaldo showed courage and strength, and yes he did give into desires that also thwarted other men. He did show he was different when he refused to rape anyone else like the jaguncos in Hermogenes’ group did, and when he became chief and told his group he would kill someone, his friends stopped him before he actually harmed anyone, and showed that they were not ones for senseless killing and violence either, everything has its place. Is it only Man? “One must never give way to anger itself, for when harbors anger against another, it is the same as permitting that person to control our thoughts and emotions, which obviously is a surrender of sovereignty, and great foolishness as well.” Riobaldo says this, fairly early in the book and it holds true throughout the reading. Maybe what man really gives into is anger, there is no Devil but the one we create when we refuse to see what lies beneath the motives of those around us. Why does the leper lick guavas? He is tossed out like human trash and treated without respect, once more are like him, at least he won’t have to face it alone. In the novel, it does not seem apparent that the devil exists. For every Hermogenes and leper in a tree, there is Ze Bebelo, Joca Ramiro, Madeiro Vaz, Diadorim, and Riobaldo. In the novel we want to believe the devil exists within the minds of those who do bad things, in order to vilify them and make them out to be worse than they may actually be. However to do that would be to ignore what also goes on in all of the lives of those who live in the sertao. The world is not black and white but a mixture of all different colors, and all the streams make both white rapids and calm rivers for the people who live in that area.
The Grand sertao is full of many paths, it’s just a matter of which one you take. Why is living such a “dangerous business” and who makes it that way? It seems as if it is just men, letting the Devil into their hearts and willing to give up their souls, what makes them human. But if all bad is to be recognized as the Devil, then all good must be God. We see plenty of good happening in the novel, is it not the works of men? I guess what I’m trying to say is if there is a devil, it most likely, is just man.
Coding Evil: The Devil in Many Forms
by Raul Garcia Cardona
In what is the first Brazilian novel I have ever read, I found myself, as much as the main character (Riobaldo), immersed in a plethora of mixed feelings and emotions, greatly torn about what to do or how to interpret them. In order to grasp the full reasoning behind the author’s intentions it seems, one has to come full circle, much as Riobaldo did, and read till the end. The devil, it seems, is an ever present entity lurking around every corner of the sertao masquerading as temptation all throughout the novel. In this novel, Riobaldo seems to use the narrative of his own story as a way to discover and deconstruct his psyche in order to know once and for all if there is an actual devil or not. He takes us through the journey of his entire life in hopes that by doing this, he himself could discover the true motive behind his past actions. Was it the devil that guided him to make those decisions? Was there even such a thing as the devil? Rosa seems to encrypt the concept of evil very effectively throughout his book as a way for the reader himself to interpret on his own the root and motive of the actions of someone like Riobaldo. An example of this is when Riobaldo narrates to his listener the difficulty in coming to terms with his “forbidden” love for Diadorim, which is beyond tempting. Their love, portrayed as shameful. By depicting their relationship this way, Diadorim is to a certain degree demonized. At one point Riobaldo actually asks himself: “could love be sent by the devil?” From this we can draw all sorts of parallels, one of which is that, when Riobaldo “sells” his soul to the devil, he has actually sold it to Diadorim: an incessant tempter for him, who, just like the devil, is an ever-present entity throughout his narrative.
The reason in my mind that Rosa is so subtle and effective in concealing his ideas is because he wants his reader to not only follow the story as he tells it, but also because he wants us to draw our own conclusions and interpretations, exactly in the way his main character (Riobaldo) does. So, much like in the way Riobaldo deconstructs his thoughts and beliefs about the devil, the reader is encouraged to do this as well, so much so that at the end, even though Riobaldo says for a moment that “the devil does not exist”, he is not completely convinced, leaving the idea somewhat open for interpretation. Furthermore, Rosa tries to engage us in this discussion about the existence of the devil by showing Riobaldo constantly questioning himself in front of his silent listener, who in my opinion is merely an analogy for us the readers.
For most the novel, Rosa takes us through Riobaldo’s internal contradictions about what evil actually is or if it even exists for that matter. The devil, or the concept of evil seems to be an ever-present spectator in this tumultuous novel; a spectator who causes Riobaldo to constantly have these emotional internal contradictions about the essence of human nature. It seems that Rosa, by subtly encrypting the devil in many forms, wants us (the reader) to subjectively decide for ourselves, who de devil really is. So in a way, Rosa evokes internal contradictions in his reader as well and subconsciously stimulates us to question if the devil does in fact influence our actions. So in essence, as the reader goes through the novel, not only does he (the reader) see the emotional turmoil that Riobaldo is going through, but also subconsciously formulates his own opinions about the same human emotions.
It seems Rosa’s tumultuous novel does not explicitly tell us who or what the devil is but rather presents the story in a way that let’s us subjectively decide for ourselves not only if there is an actual devil, but also what and who he is. The devil, it seems, is encoded in your own perception. Just like Riobaldo, I came to realize this once the novel came full circle at the very end. As we read through the novel, by presenting situations such as the one when Riobaldo goes into the woods to make a pact with the devil, Rosa diverts and even tries to guide our attention towards what we think will be the devil himself in flesh and bone. Rosa writes the novel in a way to get us to expect a personified version of the devil and cleverly get us to fail to see the veiled references to the devil all around us; one of which is: the Sertao. It is not until the end that we can sort of have an epiphany and consider the Sertao itself as the root of all evil in this novel; the devil itself, that ever-present entity that sees everything, that guides Riobaldo’s actions, and shapes his decisions. In this regard, Rosa implicitly tells us that we do not need an incarnate evil being to explain the basest acts of human nature. It is no coincidence that this entire novel takes place in the backlands: the Sertao. In my opinion, we can clearly see how the Sertao is that ever present evil lingering around, watching, waiting, so invisible yet so obviously present. The fact that I came to this sort of epiphany until the very end of the novel speaks about how effective Rosa’s concealment of the devil is throughout the novel. It seems that for Joao Rosa, conscious thinking creates the idea of evil in one’s self and in this sense, evil does not actually possess and intrinsic meaning. It is as if Rosa wants us to realize that human perception is a very polarizing concept and that we should not limit ourselves to one way of thinking about our nature and the manner in which we apprehend the world around us. The way in which we view evil is a perfect example of this. By concealing the concept of evil and never explicitly telling us what it is or who it is personified in, Rosa, via Riobaldo’s theorization about the devil, tries to highlight the limitations of human perception and knowledge; the idea that even though we can conceive the existence of a concept such as the devil, we are often unable to perceive the true nature behind it. In a sense, Rosa uses the devil as a vessel for the purpose of getting people (reader’s) to gauge their reflective abilities. It seems to me that the purpose behind Rosa’s novel is to help us come to terms with both our potential as well as the limitations in our way of thinking. Interestingly enough, when analyzing this in a somewhat abstract manner, I came to realize that we can draw a parallel between the scrutinies on the existence of the devil, as an incentive for Riobaldo’s account of his narrative, to the exploration of human perception as an incentive or motive for Rosa’s composition of his novel.
As mentioned before, in this novel, the devil takes many forms. In fact, it takes as many forms as the reader desires because, it is only through the reader’s interpretation and criticism of Riobaldo’s motives, by which the devil can materialize. In this way, it is really up to the reader decode the concept of evil into something tangible. One of the most representative examples, as we just discussed, is the Sertao; material entity that is shaping Riobaldo’s actions all throughout the novel. The second example is Diadorim himself. By depicting Riobaldo’s helpless attraction towards Diadorim as forbidden and taboo, Rosa tries to once again hide the concept of evil, this time in the form of an actual human being. If we look back at Riobaldo’s narrative, ever since the beginning, Diadorim, much like the Sertao, has been a permanent presence in the novel, guiding Riobaldo all throughout. Riobaldo at times, reluctantly gives in to his feelings of love for Diadorim. These feelings of love for another man also provoke the reader to reflect on the concept of homosexuality, which to some people could also be considered a form of evil, especially in the context of the 1950’s when the novel was written. So just like Riobaldo asked himself: “could love be sent by the devil?” the reader could also question the roots of these homosexual feelings. Interestingly, not only can Diadorim be demonized in the eyes of the reader because of the forbidden sexual temptation that he cast upon Riobaldo, but also because of his lingering presence all throughout Riobaldo’s narrative. An example of this is when Riobaldo was filled with anger and revulsion against the leper he encountered deep in the sertao. He was contemplating whether or not to kill him, and for some reason at that moment he thought about what Diadorim would tell him to do. “Riobaldo, kill the poor fellow if you must, but at least do not scorn him – rather kill him with your own hand plunging the knife”. The concept of the devil permeates throughout Rosa’s novel; it is as if he (Rosa) himself is also searching for the truth. While we must, just as Riobaldo does, continue to doubt the existence of evil, we cannot doubt the existence of the belief in evil, a belief that is a common part of the dialogues of every human society. It is not necessary to incarnate an evil being to elucidate the most basal acts of human nature; however, for people it seems, it is extraordinary opportune to formulate and preserve myths that maintain a belief in a living entity that personifies the ultimate evil incarnate. The reason for this, I believe, is because it is easier for people to justify their destructive actions by somehow thinking that their decisions were beyond their control and were subconsciously guided by a sort of “evil” supernatural entity (live the devil) instead of admitting to themselves that it was them, and no one else, who actually willingly made those decisions.
As we see it, however, all of human imagination has the power to become real, so an ultimate, incarnate evil being must therefore exist only because we must inevitably create such out of our own misguided beliefs. An ultimate incarnate evil being may therefore come to exist simply because we have collectively chosen to believe in it. We must wonder what poor tortured soul we have then forever condemned to eternity in Hell, to be Hell”s master, as a consequence of our own poor, misguided faiths. By these standards, we can see how subjective the concept of the devil is in this novel. We can demonize intangible things such as love, and temptation, we can materialize it in the form of the Sertao for example or even personify it just as we did with Diadorim. Through his writing, it seems Rosa believes that the devil resides in what we as human beings call perception, that it is only our mind that shapes what we believe is real or not. In an episode of tremendous importance and great ambiguity enclosed by the novel, Riobaldo goes to the woods to make a pact with the devil by selling his soul. He does not find the devil but after this scene, Riobaldo realizes that he has changed and seems to be in an overwhelming state of psychological turmoil. Following these efforts to sell his soul to the devil, it seems that Riobaldo himself realizes that his personality has developed perplexingly stronger. Could he really have sold his soul to the devil? Did the devil really exist? This is a question that internally Riobaldo had to answer himself because now, if the devil actually existed, then he would be forever condemned to hell. However, if he could, by continuing to tell his narrative to his listener convince himself that the devil was merely a preposterous concept, then he would be saved. So, in this regard, Riobaldo is essentially narrating his story to save his life. He is trying to convince himself through his narrative that there is no such thing as the devil. “Doesn’t everyone sell his soul? I tell you, sir: the devil does not exist, there is no devil, yet I sold him my soul. . . . That is what I am afraid of, my dear sir: we sell our souls, only there is no buyer.”
Rosa’s novel is extremely effective not only in depicting the emotional turmoil in its main character Riobaldo, but also in subtly provoking its reader into actually testing the boundaries of human perception. He (Rosa) does this by perpetually encapsulating the concept of the devil in many subjective forms. Rosa wants his readers, just as Riobaldo does, to convince themselves or at least come to a conclusion about the nature of our actions. He does this by presenting a myriad of situations that test the boundaries of human emotions, human suffering, love, empathy, forgiveness, death, compassion, murder, etc. He does this as a way for us to draw parallels to our own lives and make us think about what we would do if faced with similar situations. A perfect example of this would be the concept of homosexuality. Do we condemn it? Do we approve it? Do we think its evil for some reason? And if it is in fact evil, are we selling our souls to the devil by giving into homosexual feelings of love just as Riobaldo did at times? Can love have two identities? Good and Evil? Straight and homosexual? It seems that Rosa thinks that it is only our collective and individual perception that shapes what we truly believe in. This is something that Riobaldo came to terms with at the very end of the novel.
Just as Riobaldo is narrating to save his life, we as an audience are reading to save ours. Much in the way we go to a confessionary and hope that we can not only be forgiven for our sins, but also to be convinced by someone else that the actions we have undertaken are somehow the correct ones, Riobaldo uses his unnamed listener to kind of justify his actions and seek approval.
The Devil to Pay in the Backlands
by Erin Gerrard
It starts with “nothing,” or so the narrator and main player, Riobaldo, claims as he relates a mesmerizing story full of “uncertainties” to an anonymous “Sir” in João Guimarães Rosa’s novel The Devil to Pay in the Backlands (3). The narrative of this retired “jagunço” quite literally traces itself in a smooth, yet fragmented, pattern of a figure-eight. In this way, the larger themes at play such as existential questions concerning the Devil, or “What-You-May-Call-Him,” and the perpetual struggles of theological truth, remain constant battles throughout the story for the now old and weary Riobaldo, while the inserted pocket-narratives offer paths. Treacherous paths, which persistently and paradoxically provoke the reader to deeply reflect upon as they trudge through the hardships of the “sertão,” also known as the backlands, along with Riobaldo. Even though it becomes exceedingly difficult for Riobaldo to coherently share the meaning of his experiences, especially since he frequently bounces between events and his past selves, the supporting character, Diadorim, seems to provide solace and keep the former more grounded in his meandering monologue to the curious observer. Thus, through closely examining Riobaldo’s unconventional relationship with Diadorim, the conflicts and complexities riddled throughout the story can more precisely be identified and evaluated.
Riobaldo likens Diadorim’s character to a “soft haze,” a synesthesia description of Diadorim which clearly demonstrates the contradictory representation of his character as both a soothing, yet blurry, figure in the novel (18). For instance, the deceivingly simple flashback story of a young Riobaldo’s encounter with a fascinating boy named Reinaldo (secretly Diadorim), and their epic canoeing experience down the river bank brings to mind the ubiquitous idea that “living is a dangerous business” (70). This short episode, in a way, quintessentially symbolizing the twisted pattern of the former’s story; like a winding and turbulent river consisting of endless doubts and restrictive fears. But while Riobaldo is overwhelmingly shaking with “fear and shame” with having to face “the brutal [and] treacherous water,” the boy Reinaldo, oppositely, is undaunted (87). Though, at first, his composed demeanor is unsettling to Riobaldo, eventually, the he cannot help but become wholly sedated by the boy’s irresistible halcyon response to their situation. The “calm, calm [he had seen in] his eyes, [and how], they shed a kind of light,” subsequently, touches Riobaldo’s apprehensive character in a way which moves him to be braver (88). Therefore, Diadorim’s effect appears to simultaneously inspire Riobaldo to be courageous, yet also induces him to dive and dig deeper in order to more completely understand the obscure conflicts and complexities of life, which ironically are reflected by, yet lay hidden, within the chaotic confines of the enigmatic sertão.
In this way, the “nothing” Riobaldo begins and then closes his story, actually offers a plethora of infinite meaning beyond what the apparent translation readily allows the reader to comprehend. Although the interplay of Riobaldo’s complex thoughts seem very much like scared and scattered plankton in a vast ocean of confusion, feebly attempting to survive the great beasts lurking within, all tossed around in multiple directions by an evil, unmerciful wind; Diadorim’s presence provides an anchor for him in sundry ways. The latter, therefore, aids in the navigation of the narrative and turns that meaningless, hopeless void called “nothing” into something more conclusive in the end for Riobaldo—Before, a “dried-up river” of a man, now changed and more receptive to the idea of the devil, at least admitting to his existence in man, and the chosen paths.
The Devil to Pay in the Backlands
by Megan Jackson
The novel, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, by Joao Guimaraes Rosa is about a retired jagunco named Riobaldo. The novel is basically a series of flashbacks of Riobaldo’s life as a young jagunco. Riobaldo is talking to a man, we never find out who he is specifically, and is telling him his life story and throughout the story he ponders with the stranger about whether or not the devil exists and the trials of good and evil. These topics were always on Riobaldo’s mind as a young man and he could never quite make up his mind; he was certain of his uncertainty. However, at the very end of the novel he finally states his stance and claims that the devil surely does not exist, but it is man that exists. I believe that Riobaldo came to this conclusion by realizing that man merely created the devil as an excuse for the evil inside themselves.
The characters in this novel blamed their poor actions and bad luck on the devil. Riobaldo did not want to believe that he himself was capable of his actions that he regretted and the bad thoughts he had like wanting to kill innocent men and rape young women. In the novel Riobaldo decides that he’s had enough of his uncertainty of whether the devil exists and decides to go out to the crossroads and call upon the devil. When he does call upon him, requesting him to do something, nothing happens. So Riobaldo comes to the conclusion at this time that the devil does not exist because if he did something surely would have happened. After a while though Riobaldo becomes a different man, he becomes power hungry and has a thirst for killing. He takes over power as chief jagunco and has the urge to kill innocent people. When he starts to notice these changes he blames it on the idea that he may have actually sold his soul to the devil, even though he had decided he didn’t exist. He changed his mind because he didn’t want to believe that he was the one producing these evil thoughts and actions. No one wants to admit that they are capable of horrible actions or things they regret so they simply find a way to push the blame off themselves and onto someone or something.
One of the things that led to Riobalbo’s decision is his capability to admit that he doesn’t know if the devil exists or not and his courage to confront it. Humans do not like to admit when they do not know something or are uncertain, however; Riobaldo fully admits this throughout the novel and challenges it. He says that he “wanted certainty in a place of uncertainty, something that had a meaning” (349). He wanted answers for the things that he couldn’t understand; he wanted to finally have a meaning for the word devil. So in order for him to get his answer he goes to the crossroads and calls for the devil. This would be a scary thing to do for even some of the bravest jaguncos, yet he still does it. He says “I was not going to be afraid. What I was feeling was the fear that he was having of me!” (342). Riobaldo decided that he wasn’t afraid that he was finally going to get his answer but he was actually afraid that he falling right into the devil’s plan and the devil was now going to take him. Even despite this fear he still goes and this shows his true courage and determination for answers. He understands that in order to live life with comprehension you need courage to gain insight and states “what life demands of us is courage” (264). Without Riobaldo’s ability to admit his uncertainty he never would have pondered the devil’s existence and without his courage he never would have been able to confront the mystery and go to the crossroads.
When Riobaldo finally does go to the crossroads and calls upon the devil nothing happens. He calls out Lucifer and Satan and there is nothing but silence. He was expecting something drastic or significant to happen but there was only silence. During this time he ponders what this could mean and decides that the devil is not real. He indirectly states that we are the devil by asking the stranger “Do you know what silence is? Silence is only ourselves” (344). Right there he is admitting that we ourselves are the devil and that the devil is not real. He calls for the devil and he gets silence and silence is simply ourselves. We are the devil; the evil that the devil causes us to do is the evil that is inside of every man. While he is at the crossroads waiting for something to happen he also wonders why he is even doing this and he says “I wanted only this- to be myself!” (343). He knows that the devil may not exist and it can just be him having these bad thoughts and producing these horrible actions. He knows that he cannot be himself until he knows if it’s him or the devil making the evil. By going out to the crossroads he was able to confront this and figure out his true self. If it is the devil that makes the evil then there is nothing he can do about it. However, if the evil is coming from him that is a characteristic of him and it gives him a better understanding of who he really is. By going to the crossroads Riobaldo was able to realize that the devil is not real and that the evil is a characteristic of every man.
The scene of Riobaldo at the crossroads is intense and very important to the novel as a whole; it is basically the turning point. The crossroads is not only a place but can also be related by the fact that Riobaldo is at a crossroad in his life. A crossroad in real life a like an intersection in which a person needs to make a decision on which way to go next. A crossroad in a figurative sense is when a person needs to make a decision about something in their life but is torn. Riobaldo was not only at a physical crossroad but also a figurative one by the fact that he was forcing himself to make a decision on whether or not the devil exists. The crossroad can also be symbolized by the devil. It’s the place where man has to decide if they are strong enough to take responsibility of their evil actions or blame it on the devil and use him as their scapegoat. Riobaldo says that “the ground of the cross road belongs to him” (343), him being the devil. He is the reason for this crossroad in a man’s life; he can choose path A or B. Path A is man choosing to use the devil as his excuse for his wrong doings. Man is scared to admit that he has done wrong and blames his thoughts and actions on the devil. Path B is man taking responsibility for his actions and realizing it is he himself who has done wrong and doesn’t blame it on the devil because the devil does not exist. Riobaldo was at this crossroad and once the devil did nothing he realized that the devil doesn’t exist and chose path B. The crossroad is a symbol for the devil and man’s internal struggle with their own evils.
One thing that is very interesting is that Riobaldo never questions if God exists throughout the novel. He is always calling upon God for safety and protection and never once questions his existence. God and the devil normally go hand and hand; it’s like good and evil. The devil is an excuse for evil actions in people then can’t God be an excuse for the good and righteous actions also. The thing is people themselves do not normally give God credit for their good actions because they are not ashamed of them. When a man gives money to the homeless he does not say God made him, he thinks of himself as a good person; that is was his own doing. However, if a man robs another man he says it’s the devil working in him, that he had no control and that is because he is ashamed of his actions and doesn’t want to take responsibility and think that he is truly capable of such a thing. Riobaldo does ponder God and his relationship with good and evil. He says
one thing is sure, one alone, even though it differs for every person, and that is: God waits for each of us to act. In this world, there are all degrees of good and bad persons. But suppose everybody were bad; would not then everybody be good? Ah, it is only for the sake of pleasure and happiness that we seek to know everything, to develop a soul, to have a conscience. To suffer, none of this is needed (259).
He is claiming here that our actions are our own, that God is simply waiting for us to do something. These actions can be good or they can be bad all depending on the person. He also purposes that without good there cannot be bad and without bad there cannot be good because without comparison it is all the same. So there needs to be good and evil in the world because without it everything would just be one standard norm whether it is good or bad. These good or bad actions are still not that of God or the devil though; they are our own. Riobaldo doesn’t question the existence of God because he truly believes he is real but he doesn’t believe that he is the reason for our actions just as he doesn’t believe the devil is the reason for bad actions. He never questions it because he is more willing to admit it is him doing his good action than he is willing to admit to doing his bad actions.
Riobaldo not only suggests that man is responsible for his bad actions but also that the evil itself is inside the man; that it is a characteristic of every man. He also suggests that the evil inside man can also be called the animal inside. He says “I saw that what fights is the animal inside us, not the man” (446). He is saying that every man has an animal inside and that animal is evil. Some men are capable of suppressing that animal while others not so well. The characters in this novel all have the animal inside them yet some are better at overpowering it than others. Take Diadorim for example, he is able to overpower the evil in him very well. Although he does kill while in battle he never kills when it is unnecessary. He is always very aware of doing what is right and tries his best to help Riobaldo suppress his evil as well. Diadorim is almost like Riobaldo’s good conscience in a way. When Riobaldo gets out of line Diadorim tries to rein him back in. For instance, when the jaguncos go into towns they normally rape young women; Diadorim tries to make a pact with Riobaldo not to do this. Diadorim overpowers his evil by not doing this; however, Riobaldo is not as good at suppress his animal inside and sometimes does take advantage of the women. Another character that subdues his natural evil sometimes is Ze Beblo. Although he is not as strong as Diadorim he does succeed sometimes, because although he does have a thirst for blood from time to time and kills and rape he does have a good side. He wants to become a deputy and help people. He suppresses his animal for the greater good of people and hopes to help. The one character that is the worst at overpowering his evil is Hermogenes. He is the characteristic of evil in this novel, he is so blood thirsty and will kill anyone in his path that does him wrong. For example when Joca Ramiro decides to let Ze Beblo go he does not approve and kills Joca Ramiro. Hermogenes is unable to control his evil and lets it take over him. This causes him to perform horrible actions and hurt many people. So this novel shows a wide variety of degrees of evil that can prevail in people. Evil is a human characteristic that is in everyone; it is human nature to mess up and have bad thoughts or wrong actions. How it is handled is all dependent upon the man. When they let it take over they blame it as actions of the devil not actions of their own selves.
One of the great qualities of Riobaldo is that he is able to admit to this and tries to take control. He is not scared to accept the fact that he has an animal inside him. He now understands that he is the one responsible for his wrong doings and that he is capable of those evil thoughts and actions, not the devil. He now knows that he cannot blame it on the devil anymore. People do not want to accept the fact that they have evil in them so for Riobaldo to be able to ponder about this for so long and then accept it is very honorable. Also he tries to change his actions once he becomes aware that it is in fact him being evil. Whenever he has the urge to kill someone in the back of his mind he knows it is wrong and tries to do well. For example, when he was supposed to kill the man on the horse because he was the next person he saw, he tries to find loopholes in what he said by killing the horse. He knows that killing an innocent man is wrong so he tries his best to suppress that evil animal inside and do the right thing. Riobaldo’s self-awareness makes him conscience of his actions and in turn makes him a respectable man. Riobaldo never fully decided that the devil does not exist until the very end of the novel when he says, “there is no devil! What I say is, if he did… it is man who exists,” (492). Riobaldo finally made up his mind by looking back at his events in his life that he never sold his soul to the devil because the devil does not exist. He realized that the devil is just an excuse for the evil, or the animal, inside everyone. He concluded that the man has a natural evil in them and it is just human nature for someone to do wrong things in life and that the devil is just a scapegoat for these actions.
by Alberto O. Perez
To what extent would a woman degrade herself in order to succeed in a male dominated society? The U.S. is an example of a country where the latter has been historically present (either in the job, and/or at home) and has prevented women from expressing their true potential and achieving greater things (higher education, career, and the admiration of people) in life. The novelist João Guimarães Rosa addresses this in his book The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. Guimarães starts his story with the character Riobaldo (former jagunco) who narrates his life, in a back-forth manner, to an unknown individual. The whole story takes life in the backlands of Brazil where the jaguncos (group of male armed thieves who steal from rich landowners, are nomadic, and predominantly machos) are prevalent throughout the story and take on multiple gun battles against other jagunco groups. In this essay I will base my analysis on a character that goes by the name Diadorim who is a woman disguising as jagunco and keeps this a secret throughout the story. She (Diadorim) happens to be friends with Riobaldo (who have a mutually repressed love) and is one of the most feared jaguncos. In this book women are submissive (stay at home to satisfy the desires and orders of their husbands and are sometimes forced by jaguncos to have sex) and/or are prostitutes. I will analyze Diadorim’s decision to assume a jagunco/macho appearance and attitude in a jagunco dominated environment and how it resulted for her, whether this had a positive or negative outcome. Emphasizing on this character and how she internalized her true self (disguising as a man and repressing her true feelings towards Riobaldo), in order to comply with the norms and expectations of this macho group she was with, possibly was (in the end) the best choice in order for her to achieve a position of power/respect within that group/society.
In The Devil to Pay in the Backlands there is a scene where Diadorim is offended because some of the jaguncos within her group started commenting on her female features (nobody knows she is a woman at this point in the story) and they were also laughing. Diadorim is bothered and reacts by pushing one of them against the ground and pulls out a knife to the man’s throat. As consequence, the other men felt the rage and power Diadorim had adopted at that moment with that jagunco and they decided to back up and retract their words. If Diadorim had reacted with the attitude that was expected from women in that society, she’d cried and expressed her feelings but not manifest them because otherwise she would’ve been definitely physically overpower by these intimidating and strong jagunco men. However, the latter was not the case for Diadorim’s reaction, she instead assumed a powerful and aggressive one, characteristic of a jagunco. Therefore, the image the jaguncos (who insulted and laughed at Diadorim) now had towards Diadorim was one of power and therefore worthy of respect.
To change one’s self (appearance, mindset) to satisfy the expectation(s) individual/group/society and therefore be at a better position to succeed (economically, professionally, etc. ) than those who remain themselves (don’t satisfy such expectations) may be contradictory to an individual’s belief regarding the goodness of being unique. However, sometimes this loyalty of sticking to our uniqueness may not allow us to be what we want because there are all these norms and expectations, implemented by society, that must be fulfilled and carried on in order to get where we want (in life) and unfortunately we may not fulfill the latter with such uniqueness of ours. In the example discussed in the essay, Diadorim adopting a jagunco’s personality and reacting in accord to this by attacking one of the jaguncos who was making fun of her, illustrates the previously mentioned points about breaking with this uniqueness of ours in order to fit into a particular group and have a greater chance to achieve a position of power and with this gain respect/admiration within this group.
Defying Gender in Grande Sertão: Veredas
by Nicole Teltoe
Joao Guimaraes Rosa’s Grande Sertão: Veredas uniquely tells its story through a continuous, stream of consciousness like narrative. This complicates the text, mirroring the messiness and unrestricted flow of the human mind. The reader is only presented with one person’s side of things, that is the protagonist Riobaldo.While on some occasions Riobaldo can seem like an unreliable narrator because of his disjointed thinking, the narrative actually breaks everything down with raw honesty. One of the most interesting aspects of this novel is how the two protagonists confront and defy typical gender roles and how when deconstructed itself, gender is nothing more than a social construct.
Riobaldo and Diadorim exemplify the dichotomy of gender, which was especially severe back then. Men are stereotypically rough and tough, while women are not hardly present in the novel at all, which makes a statement itself: women aren’t the protagonists, they are side characters in a man’s life. Submissive, in the background, and never actually seen or heard unless its regarding the male. Riobaldo’s “loved one” Otacília, for example, is never actually given proper characterization considering how apparently important she is Riobaldo. She is never regarded as her own person with individual goals and desires. Did she even want to marry Riobaldo? He doesn’t even consider the possibility that she might not have. The only female that is given any considerable characterization, Diadorim, only gets such because she’s goes through the entire novel believed to be a man.
Throughout the novel, Riobaldo gets progressively more “macho,” becoming the leader of the jaguncos and also more cold and closed off towards Diadorim. It can’t just be coincidence that Riobaldo feels this increasing urge to be as comfortist male as possible while he’s also simultaneously in love with another man; he can’t stop loving him altogether so the best he can do is try to ignore those feelings and overcompensate by becoming as male as possible. This is the only way Riobaldo knows how to handle his conflicting emotions, which really says something about how he was raised, and since this is a commentary on gender, says something about how men in general are raised. In a patriarchal society, masculinity is a fake it til you make it kind of gig, a facade.
Another hugely prominent theme in Grande Sertão: Veredas is courage. For Chief Riobaldo, courage is everything, something he is constantly seeking. On the surface he is indeed courageous, a fierce warrior and respected leader. Yet under the surface, like so many things in this novel, that is not the case. Unbeknownst to him, Riobaldo is constantly inwardly struggling with cowardice, never able to vocally address or accept his feelings of true love for Diadorim until it is too late, “One is always in the dark, only at the last minutes do the lights come on.” And it is his insecurity about his love for this other man that drives him to start acting so manly and courageous. Ironically, Riobaldo’s transformation into such an impressive jagunco is due largely in part to the guidance and influence of Diadorim, who has been aiding his growth from boyhood.
In the narrattive, Riobaldo frequently expresses discomfort about killing, even though it’s still something he does. He only does it because as a jagunco he must, and Riobaldo is all about doing what he must, what is proper. Being a sharpshooter is his way of removing himself from the killing; it also saves him the trouble of having to deal intimately with blood, which he repeatedly states his disgust for. At one point in the narrative, Riobaldo claims that “…disgust is fear, is it not?” Why is the baddest jagunco around, the leader, so afraid of blood? The courage Riobaldo lacks in this area can be seen manifested in his counterpart Diadorim. With her knife, it’s always fierce, always personal, and she always does it with finesse. Furthermore it is Diadorim that kills Hermogenes, the goal that Riobaldo was working towards for half the novel. All of this is even more impressive in light of the fact that Diadorim is actually a woman; the amount of courage necessary to do what she has done is almost unfathomable.
Diadorim as a woman is by far the best rejection of traditional gender roles which is presented in this novel. Not only does she do the obvious blatant rejection of the female role by living as a man, but the fact that she is one of the best jaguncos around speaks volumes against the concept of what it took to be a “man” back then. Diadorim is not a man, and yet she’s one of the baddest around and every other man thinks so too; more evidence that masculinity is just a social construct, and that a person’s biological gender doesn’t necessarily define who they are as a person, or what gender they identify with.
Not only does Diadorim fill out the places Riobaldo fails at as a jagunco, she also expresses herself and feelings in a way that Riobaldo never can. Being in touch with one’s feelings is generally considered to be more of a feminine act, so this is where Diadorim really transcends the boundaries of gender by being both masculine and feminine. She’s also very intuitive, always seeming to know what Riobaldo is thinking or feelings regardless of how much he’s willing to tell her. While Riobaldo dismisses the fact that he’s in love with Diadorim, and considers the whole idea impossible, Diadorim almost never shies away from her feelings. Whether she’s sad or disappointed or full of admiration, if it’s concerning Riobaldo, then she will tell Riobaldo. She even vowed to confess everything, her secret identity as a woman, to Riobaldo after the fighting was done. Hermogenes’ wife, one of the only other female characters in the novel, is also intuitive, able to tell from the short time they were around one another that Diadorim is a woman. It’s clear that Guimaraes Rosa is trying to establish that trait as being feminine since both the prominent female characters embody it.
Another way Riobaldo defies normal gender roles is by being quite feminist. Although it’s not incredibly apparent outwardly, Riobaldo does embody a feminist type, especially progressive for it being this time period. He doesn’t condone his men raping women, at one point even declaring to protect one girl who he has a feeling could be in danger of getting raped. He defends and also feels affection for a girl who has a generally “promiscuous” reputation, something that the other men disdain. As chief, Riobaldo adopts a cripple and a black boy for companioins, which he had not outward reason for doing, so it must’ve been out of compassion. Also after learning that Diadorim was in fact a woman, he feels the utmost awe and respect for her. Even though Riobaldo is the only character we get inside the head of, from the way he describes the other typical men, it’s clear that he loves women and other minorites, as human beings, and also respects them, which is atypical amongst the general population of jaguncos.
“I did not want what I wanted most…” this sentiment captures Riobaldo’s ever-constant ambivalence towards admitting or even really addressing his feelings for Diadorim. Loving another man, another jagunco furthermore, is such an alien concept to him that sometimes he can’t even handle thinking about it. He tries to convince himself that it’s revolting and his feelings are false, but as we already know, as he’s already admitted to himself, disgust is just fear. That’s why he won’t admit it, to talk about this huge, almost tangible thing that’s between thing: Riobaldo knows they are in love, and the implications of that are too scary.
Perhaps the only reason why Diadorim was more courageous about addressing or admitting her feelings for Riobaldo is because she knows the truth, so she doesn’t really have to deal with the disturbing worry that Riobaldo feels at being in love with someone of the same sex in this time period. In her heart, she must truly believe that one day she can confess her secret and their feelings won’t be taboo anymore. That “one-day” mentality allows her more freedom to act in the now, while Riobaldo is always constricted, never having the courage to let down his facade and just embrace his love for Diadorim.
Overall, the characters that Grande Sertão: Veredas creates, and whom defy the traditional ideas of gender, really illuminates how much of what makes a gender is really just societal norms forced upon us and passed down. So much of it is just fake, airs that people put on .Moreover, Riobaldo’s immense regret upon finding out his loved one was actually female, which removed all taboo, exemplifies how the fear of unknown or alien things can suffocate happiness, like homophobia.
by Jenny Hackleman
The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, written by João Rosa, is a gripping novel that details the life story of Riobaldo the jagunço, one of the brave and ruthless cowboys of the Brazilian sertão. In the novel, our protagonist relays his entire life story to his silent listener, and recalls the many adventures and battles he lived through throughout his time as a jagunço. Riobaldo, called by some as “the craziest jagunço that has ever lived”, is a skilled military strategist and exceptional marksman. He seems to be the perfect example of the manliest of men, except for one dark secret- the attraction and love he feels for his best friend and right-hand man, Diadorim. The Devil to Pay in the Backlands explores the social stigmas and very realistic characteristics of a gay relationship. It offers a highly controversial and yet acceptable portrayal of this homoerotic friendship to its audience through it’s surprise ending. It is the story of the love between Riobaldo and Diadorim, woven through the many adventures that Riobaldo experiences throughout his time in the sertão, that makes Riobaldo such a complex and authentic character. This complexity stems not only his love for Diadorim, but also from the sacrifices Riobaldo makes, the overpowering influence of Diadorim on him, and overall the special and unique relationship between these two jagunços.
Throughout the novel, immense detail is emphasized about the struggles Riobaldo faces when confronted with the fact that he loves and is attracted to (what he believes to be) a man. Even as a child, Riobaldo recalls the immediate fondness he felt toward Diadorim. During Riobaldo’s first encounter with Diadorim as a boy, he states, “I looked at that boy with such delight in his company such as I had never felt for anyone before. He seemed to me so different; I liked his delicate features, even his voice, very soft, very agreeable.” (pg.85) Right away, Riobaldo feels a strong connection and an instantaneous fondness towards Diadorim after the only the first sentence he speaks. The reader is clearly made aware that the boy Riobaldo meets will be an exceptionally important character throughout the rest of the novel, and can easily predict that their friendship will be incredibly profound and vital to the rest of the story that Riobaldo tells.
The second time Riobaldo and Diadorim meet, after their first encounter as young boys, Riobaldo makes a decision that will change the rest of his life. Years later, when Riobaldo sees him again, Diadorim has now become part of a group of jagunços- the men who live by their own rules and are thought to be the most courageous men in all of Brazil. In seeing Diadorim again, Riobaldo chooses to become a jagunço as well, simply for the fact that he feels so tied to Diadorim that he believes there is no other option but to join this group of men. Riobaldo feels an overpowering desire to be close to Diadorim, the stranger from the river that he met only once. He is so compelled by the inexplicable bond and love for a man he barely knows he decides to leave his life of lawlessness and security in order to lead the hard and unpredictable life that allows him to be with Diadorim.
Throughout the rest of the novel, the two jagunços share an incredibly intimate and underlying homosexual relationship. Although Riobaldo is somewhat more subtle about the type of love he feels toward Riobaldo throughout the beginning and middle of the novel, it becomes more and more evident throughout the novel that it is not a purely platonic friendship that the two men share. Riobaldo grapples with his homosexual feelings for Diadorim and tries to rejects them, as he believes that the love he feels for Diadorim is wrong. Towards the beginnings of his adventures as a jagunço, Riobaldo states vehemently to the listener, “I give you my word, I was very much a man, and fond of women, and I was never attracted to unnatural vices. I reject them instinctively.” (pg. 123) Although it is has become clear to the reader that Riobaldo is at least somewhat attracted to Diadorim already, Riobaldo firmly denies that he had any homosexual attractions what so ever. This, as well as Riobaldo’s many other contradictions about the nature of his “love” for Diadorim, create a tangled web of character development that laid the foundation for a compelling ending. More importantly, it also offers a very real perspective to the reader of what any straight man may have felt and dealt with if he were also attracted to another man in the time period in which The Devil to Pay in the Backlands was written, establishing depth and authenticity.
Toward the end of the novel, Riobaldo finally begins to come to terms with the attraction he has felt toward Diadorim, but states,”Were he a woman…I would seize and subdue her in my arms. But two fighting men, how could they reveal their love…? They would sooner kill each other, in a fight.” (pg. 467). This entire paragraph in the novel is the climax of his relationship with Diadorim, as it is the first concrete example that Riobaldo gives that he actually in love with Diadorim.
Although it was hinted at many times before this, as well as the fact that he loves Diadorim had already been established, this is the first time, after so many years, he could admit to himself that he was romantically attracted to Diadorim. Even as he does so, he explains that he could never express his true feelings, no matter how strongly he felt; jagunços are tough-as-nails, ruthless and courageous men. The only thing they seem to be afraid of is exploring their sexuality.
Riobaldo’s sexual feelings were but one facet of the many feelings he felt toward Diadorim, who was the reason behind many of Riobaldo’s decisions, strategies, and even his opinion of himself. Riobaldo was constantly second guessing himself and whether the decisions he was making for himself, his jagunços, and others he encountered on his journeys were right because of Diadorim; a soft word or even a simply glance was sometimes all it took for Riobaldo to change his mind. For example, after Riobaldo became chief and had an experience of possibly making a pact with the devil, his actions and peculiar behavior began to distress Diadorim. Although Riobaldo, a man who could daily make quick decisions with a firm resolve in any situation, only began to doubt himself if Diadorim chose to express his concerns. The fact that his resolve in his military strategies and interactions with other individuals could crumble so quickly in the presence of Diadorim’s opinion represented Riobaldo’s Achilles heel; as chief of the jagunços, taking in so much consideration of a subordinate to the point that he would question his strategies made it clear that Riobaldo would not live up to the ruthless and powerful potential he could have as the jagunços’ leader.
Another key example of this festered itself in a critical battle toward the end of the novel. During this battle against Hermogenes and his Judases, Riobaldo ordered Diadorim to stay with him, as he could not bear to think about Diadorim leaving him and possibly being injured. Riobaldo had to have Diadorim at his side, although he was putting his victory and the lives of his group on the line by doing so. This act of outward concern and care about Diadorim allows to see finally witness an outright action of his love for Diadorim, as well as exposes the multifaceted nature of our protagonist. Although he is a brilliant strategist and leader, the fact that he is in love with Diadorim weakens his resolve and makes for an exceptionally deep character and tangled web that the author, Rosa, spins throughout Riobaldo’s long account of his life story.
Riobaldo’s manliness and bravery in the novel made his homosexual feelings much more three-dimensional and interesting to the reader. His overall character was not effeminate or weak in any sense; rather, every character in Riobaldo’s story seemed to believe that he was the most courageous man of all. Riobaldo even seemed to think that of himself, as he would fight fearlessly in battle, came to terms with death numerous times, and never held back when he believed there was something that needed to be done as a jagunço. It would have been much easier for the author to display a gay relationship in which both characters were feminine and fitting the stereotypical characteristics of homosexual men. Instead, Rosa expertly detailed a very real and authentic character that maintained his manhood throughout the entire novel, regardless of his attraction to another man. The quote mentioned previously about Riobaldo insisting that he “was very much a man, and fond of women” is thereby quite ironic, as his character development throughout the entire novel proved that being a man and having gay feelings for another man were not mutually exclusive.
Therefore, the character of Riobaldo was an extremely risky and honest representation of the Riobaldo type of men all over the world- those who were manly, possibly homosexual, and plagued by feelings of disgust and abnormality for feeling the way they do. Riobaldo was certainly not a perfect man in any sense, which is exactly what makes him a realistic, interesting, and ultimately relatable protagonist, in some way or another. Moreover, this novel’s emphasis of Riobaldo’s masculinity and the repressed love shared between Riobaldo and Diadorim carries an immense amount of weight in the believability of their relationship, as well as in the relation to social norms of the 1950’s view of homosexuality. The secret love Riobaldo feels toward Diadorim, coupled with the courage and respect both men possess, makes their relationship extremely tense, powerful, and complicated. The turmoil Riobaldo has faced throughout this novel from his complicated relationship with Diadorim could very accurately convey the types of feelings a man questioning his sexuality might have felt when this novel was written, as well as how he would try to cope with his feelings.
In the 1950’s (when this novel was written), gay couples not only had none of the rights straight couples had in almost all parts of the world, but being attracted to the same gender equated to a loss of respect, becoming a social pariah, or even murdered for what was (and is now for many people) considered to be an immoral practice. Riobaldo’s repression and denial of what he believes to be homosexual desires for Diadorim would be extremely relatable to the gay or questioning men in the 1950’s. However, the genuine love he felt towards Diadorim as well as the close friendship they shared creates an extremely compelling argument for the normalcy of gay love. Homosexuality was something to be kept behind closed doors, never to be explored or discussed, which is exactly what Riobaldo deals with and believes throughout The Devil to Pay in the Backlands.
However, in order for the novel to offer a new look on the validity of homosexual feelings as well as gain such a widespread acclaim and acceptance in Brazil during this time period, it seems only fitting that Diadorim would be, at the end of the novel, a woman. A revolutionary piece of art blatantly accepting and normalizing the gay relationship between two men would have been easily rejected and written off by normal conventions during this time. This type of relationship between two men would have been an “abomination in the eyes of God” (or, more concretely, in the eyes of homophobic readers). In order to both portray a realistic gay relationship as well as have his book carry weight with his audience, Diadorim’s feminine sex revealed at the end of the novel could appease both parties. The superficial and homophobic individuals had an easy way to write off the lingering gay undertones throughout the novel- Diadorim was a woman all along, and therefore the only feelings Riobaldo felt were totally straight and conventional! Furthermore, the fact that he loved his eventual wife throughout the novel, and also explained how happy he was to be with her, provided further comfort to the majority of readers of The Devil to Pay in the Backlands in the time period this novel was written in.
However, readers with a more open mind and the ability to accept unconventional types of love and attraction were able to truly appreciate the complex tale told throughout the novel. The surprise at the end of the novel did not eradicate the fascinating, unconventional, real relationship that can exist between men like Riobaldo and Diadorim. Riobaldo, ultimately, was attracted to what he believed a man, and the fact that he did not know it was a woman until Diadorim was killed at the very end proves that he was very much capable of being in love with a man, no matter how much he tried to repress his feelings. Riobaldo still represented masculinity while being sexually dynamic, which is what gave The Devil to Pay in the Backlands a lot of its depth and edge. The careful and complex relationship Rosa created allowed for the fact that Diadorim was a woman being revealed at the end of the novel a very interesting and interpretive ending, rather than a simple cop-out to the groundwork he laid in exploring homosexual attractions.
Overall, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands was a novel whose ending and message is interpretive. It is true that Riobaldo was, in fact, attracted to what he believed to be a man. His decisions, strategies, and even self worth were constantly overshadowed by his love for Diadorim and the opinion that Diadorim held for him. The entire plot of The Devil to Pay in the Backlands is made so much more complex and fascinating by Riobaldo and Diadorim’s relationship. Riobaldo’s manliness and outright courage seen in numerous battles was a sharp contrast to him being in love with the man Diadorim. Rosa’s expert writing captured the true essence of a real situation many men may could have felt throughout the 1950’s, when homosexuality was considered sinful and absolutely unacceptable. However, he also forces his readers to analyze the validity of different types of love; was Diadorim being a woman really what made Riobaldo’s love for her valid and true? The ending poses and unclear explanation of Riobaldo’s romantic tendencies with Diadorim, and ultimately leads the reader to accept the type of relationship that he or she wishes to see. The Devil to Pay in the Backlands is a brilliant novel in many aspects of its writing and character development, but most of all in its realistic development and representation of our protagonist, Riobaldo, and the struggles he’s faced with from his profound friendship with Diadorim.
Unorthodox Masculine Affection
by Claudia Brito
Being a strong, decisive, and independent man has been a normative masculine role in society that men have conformed to without question. Additionally, sharing emotional feelings or thoughts with others besides a woman herself would be unequivocally unacceptable for social standards. In the case of Riobaldo, however, he constantly struggled with the complexities of affection that he felt toward male figures in his life. In his novel, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, author Joao Guimaraes Rosa raises questions about controversial masculine affection between characters of the same gender by pushing the imaginative boundaries of his decade.
From the beginning of the story, before Riobaldo became chief of the jagunços, Riobaldo was in constant question of his masculinity and his affection towards his best friend Diadorim. Riobaldo recalls having Diadorim wash his clothes because he seemed more suited to handle that chore. He recalls staring at him and admiring his attractive arms, face, and hands (p 27). As soon as he caught himself wondering about him, Riobaldo would catch himself in mid-daydream because he would begin to question himself instead and attempted to grasp a hold of his masculinity in question due to the unorthodox affections he felt towards another male – Diadorim.
Riobaldo further begins to question his masculinity and tries to analyze the reasons as to why he could possibly have such ‘evil’ thoughts. He constantly self-reproaches the idea that he could be in love with Diadorim by thinking that he has feelings towards him as payback for the evil deeds that he committed as a jagunço. He cannot seem to leave his thoughts behind and continues to think about Diadorim. He especially longs for him when he is left behind at a water hole in a small valley to clean up his wound (p 182). Riobaldo feels the need to be around him to be comforted even by his mere silence as long as he is present besides him. These strong affections, however, have him questioning himself furthermore, such as the following inner thought that he fights within, “how was it possible that I could love a man, another being of my same nature, a male like myself in attire and weapons, rough and ready in his actions? I frowned. Was he to blame? Was I to blame? I was the Chief” (p 402). As a man and chief he knows that his thoughts are not to be shared with anyone because he could be looked at as a weak person. Especially as leader of the jagunços he could not speak of such feelings because he had to assert his masculinity by being a strong, decisive, and rebellious chief to lead them.
At this point, although it is evident that Riobaldo has feelings for Diadorim due to his constant self-reproach about the issue, it is unclear to the reader if Diadorim feels the same way. We can only imagine that Diadorim does feel the same way towards him because of the small gestures he does for him as well as the way he looks at him. Diadorim seems to do his best at hiding his affection toward Riobaldo by masking his feelings behind others. For example, he encourages Riobaldo to marry Otacília as he speaks about her with tenderness in his voice (p 311). Diadorim also requests a prayer from Otacília for Riobaldo because he also knew that as jagunço his duty was to be a strong, aggressive, and non-emotional warrior. It seemed as if he could not dare allow for his true feelings for Riobaldo be known to the world.
Although we find out that Diadorim is a woman, throughout the story Guimaraes Rosa is successful in pushing the imaginative envelope as he allows the reader to believe that Riobaldo could indeed be homosexual because of his constant thoughts of affection toward Diadorim. Guimaraes Rosa raised these questions because he knew that Riobaldo’s feelings toward another man would cause controversy within the jagunços of the story and society as whole in his decade. For Riobaldo, it was crucial that he hide his feelings for fear of losing power as chief. Riobaldo recalls, “Diadorim gained a stronger hold on my affections, discussion of which was impossible” (p 403). By this, it is evident that Riobaldo chose to live a life in silence due to his unorthodox affection where he constantly questioned his masculinity due to the strong affection towards Diadorim as a man.
The Devil to Pay in the Backlands
by John Stryker
In the book The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, by Joao Guimaraes Rosa, there is no devil of the Sertao, just “Macho Men” good and bad. The reader may be inclined to think that macho men are always a recipe for conflict and disturbance. However, among the quiet farming people of the Sertao, jaguncos have developed a democratic system of keeping order in this land, amongst competition for control from bandits and the governed civilizations of the outside world. The jagunco’s interactions involve a great amount of courage, respect for others, and intelligence in interaction with other good people and with bandits of the land, in order to maintain peace and control of the Sertao amongst its people.
The evidence of courage in this novel is seen in the way the people interact with their circumstances. For example, when Riobaldo and Reinaldo are children and they are playing by the creek, a man whom the children interpret as a sexual predator approaches them. Reinaldo shows no fear as the man approaches and when he is within striking range pulls out a knife and stabs the man who reels away from the children. Reinaldo again shows this courage in the final battle, where rather than continuing the gunfight, induces a hand to hand knife battle between the jaguncos and the bandits of Hermogenes. More evidence of courage in this novel appears when the jaguncos interact with each other. All the men have a great deal of respect for each other’s experiences, age, input, and opinions, which includes determining the chief of each band of jaguncos. A jagunco may courageously stake claim to the position of chief amongst his fellow jaguncos, as Riobaldo did, and if all are in agreement, then this is the rule. It is important to note that in the democratic proceedings of jaguncos there is no hesitant input nor is there arguing, and only input from each member for the benefit of the whole group. It is hard to imagine the courage needed to command a band of trained killers, and Riobaldo battles with this mentally, which clouds his decision making when trying to be just and maintain respect from his jaguncos. This is apparent when Riobaldo encounters the old man with the horse and the small dog.
The jaguncos practice respect in their dealings with the people of different localities. In Riobaldo’s case, he had acquired this admirable quality from Madeiro Vaz, who refused to allow his men to rape and pillage the people and their villages, as the bandits of Hermogenes and Ricardao are known to do. In all his dealings with the people of the Sertao, Riobaldo tries his best to be just and fair while at the same time fighting with devilish inclination to abuse the power which is his own as chief. This behavior is seen in the example again, with the old man, his horse, and his small dog. At first Riobaldo is indecisive in what the old man’s fate should be and he is plagued by negative ideas. These ideas foster themselves into mental suffering inflicted upon the old man in determining his fate. In the end Riobaldo does nothing to harm the man and feels bad for causing this momentary suffering. He sends some of his men to find the man and to give him compensation.
In the vast Sertao the jaguncos often stop in localities to fill up on animals, supplies, and ammunition. In their interactions with the local people, the jaguncos express their intelligence with good bargaining skills in order to acquire what they need to survive. The intelligence of the jaguncos also shines when planning enemy approach and battle tactics. Casualties are minimized through a combination of distractions, strategically placed groups of men, and surprises. Several battles are quite short due to this good planning. For example, the choice to cross the desert, also known as the liso or raso, proved to be foolish for Madeiro Vaz but successful for Riobaldo, for he ends up capturing the enemy’s wife. This action could be related to intelligence and courage but may be more akin to madness as the desert crossing had never been accomplished before. Is this a sign of the devil or of macho men?
Through courage, the jaguncos are able to survive life and war on the vast Sertao and maintain control of their own organization under the pressure of the bandits and the outside world. Through respect, the jaguncos are able to maintain a good reputation with the people of the Sertao, who celebrate their existence, and they are also able to maintain peace among themselves, which would be hard for a band of macho men without continual contact with civilized society, through years of duty. Through courage and respect, the jaguncos seem to create a third virtue of intelligence. Through intelligence the jaguncos are able to live off the land with little money and respect and support from its people. They are also able to minimize casualties, even in tackling forces with greater man count than their own. In conclusion, I believe it is quite admirable, that the jagunco groups of macho men, in this vast lovely country and in the presence of growing outside world pressure, power, bad people, evil, and injustice, that these men maintain good mental composure and independence in defending what they believe to be the best existence for their people.